Nepal: Joining China's "One Belt, One Road"

Pokhara International Airport: Hope or Hidden Danger?


About 30 minutes southeast of Phewa Lake, Pokhara’s best-known tourist stop, you reach a stretch of countryside known as Chinnedanda. Green fields with sweet corn stretch out as far as the eye can see. A few huts are hidden behind the crops, children swim in small, muddy ponds, buffaloes lumber along the road, and shepherds nap under their umbrellas. The breeze carries a waft of drying dung and wet soil.


(A buffalo resting in the area where the new airport is going to be built. Photo: Lyn Lin)

 But this idyllic scene may disappear in four years.

This is the site for a new $US 216 million dollar international airport in Pokhara that is to be completed by 2020. Earlier this year, China agreed to provide technical and financial support to build the airport during the visit of Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli to Beijing. And while the airport agreements pre-date Nepal’s formal joining of the program, China Economic Net said this support was part of “One Belt, One Road,” China’s ambitious new project to develop a series of trade and infrastructure agreements with other Asian countries along old Silk Road lines.

The international airport in Pokhara would be only the country’s second major airport, a strategic advantage, and one that could be an alternative landing option used during disasters such as the massive earthquake of April 2015 that affected the Kathmandu Valley and its airport.

It could also bring tourists directly to Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, one of the most popular trekking destinations in Nepal. Some locals say the airport could also give a boost to local businesses through increased numbers of tourists.

But there’s a flip side. The roar of jet engines taking off and landing only eight kilometers away from iconic Phewa Lake could disturb tourists who’ve traveled around the world in search of tranquility, others say.


(A 2500 by 45-meter runway that the airport will  have. Photo: Lyn Lin )

Some experts also warn that the airport could  be difficult to build given Pokhara Valley’s unique geology – which is believed to be gravel, silt and clay brought by debris flows from the mountains. Some years ago, Nepali newspapers reported on sinkholes that appeared in parts of the valley after the soil caved in.

Anil Chitrakar, an engineer who was recognized as “100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum, was concerned about the airport from a geological perspective. He said Pokhara Valley was formed by glacial debris, which means that the valley floor is not solid and there could be structural problems.

According to Krishna Prasad Paudel, an engineer for the Pokhara project, the airport will cover an area of 465 acres (roughly the same size as Shantou University). The international airport will have a 2500-by-45-meter runway,  smaller than the Kathmandu Tribhuvan International airport, but it will be suitable for  medium-sized aircraft such as the Airbus 320 and Boeing 757s.


(The office of Pokhara Regional International Airport Project. Photo: Lyn Lin)

The airport has been on the drawing board since 1975 and it was only in March 2016 there were signs that Nepal would get the resources needed to build it. A joint statement between China and Nepal signed during the Nepali Prime Minister’s visit to China said that the Chinese side would agree to provide financial support on preferential terms for the airport project. Bidding for the airport was done in 2012, and it is to be built by the China CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd; the Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract was signed in 2014.

The airport is expected to cost US$215.96 million (NPR 22 billion). Mr. Paudel said the Government of Nepal will provide 25 per cent of this and the remaining 75 per cent is to be obtained as a soft loan – with a 20-year repayment period and a seven year grace period – from the Export-Import Bank of China.

Mr. Paudel said that the CAMC has designed the airport and Nepali experts will review the plans. Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority will oversee the project.

The area of Chinnedanda where the airport will come up has been fenced off but people are still living and farming their land there.

Ramjee Bhandari, 63, has a house and some gardening land of about 254 square meters, where he has lived for the past 23 years. He wants to continue living there but a notice in the newspapers has already asked him and other families to vacate the site.


(Ramjee Bhandari, becoming emotional while describing having to leave his home of over 20 years. Photo: Lyn Lin)

 “The police will remove you if you do not move, ” said Bhandari, becoming emotional during an interview. He said he had received NPR 2.7 million (about US$27,000) as compensation. “This money is not enough to buy other land and another house in Pokhara,” he added.

Paudel, the airport project engineer, said clearing the construction site was the most challenging task the government now had, as people were not satisfied with the compensation they have received. But he was confident in tackling the issues because he believed that local people would benefit considerably after the project was complete.

Deepak Bastola, a teacher at the Prithiwi Narayan branch campus in Pokhara, said that the city has always been known for its peaceful and relaxed environment and that there could be issues of noise pollution once mid-sized jets begin to arrive.

But for others, it is a tradeoff. “Sometimes we need to sacrifice something,” said Bimal Pahari, owner of Himalayan Youth Hostel near the Phewa Lake. He thought that noise pollution was not the most important issue, because Pokhara Airport would be a small one, which meant that the noise would be at acceptable levels.

Pahari spends time every day posting pictures of tourist sites around Pokhara and Nepal with the hope of attracting more Chinese tourists — who he believes can help his business recover from the impact of the 2015 earthquake.

Back at Chinnedanda, Ramjee Bhandari, the older man who had been forced to sell his family home, entered the paddy fields with fertilizer, hoping he would be able to get one more harvest before he and his family have to move out of the airport construction site.

By: Roy Luo

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